“Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised.” – Denis Waitley
Robin McAlpine wrote an interesting article for his CommonSpace column this week. In it, he congratulates the response to the SNP’s National Assemblies especially the response of the attendees to our own campaign for an independent Scotland to establish a currency by day one of independence. Having spoken to the Common Weal activists who were there for us, and from my own experiences talking to groups around the country, I know how overwhelming the feeling is in favour of our position.
This is not to say that the feeling is unanimous though and a significant line of questioning is arising around Common Weal’s policy around the area of what this means for the transition period between a successful independence referendum and the formal date of independence. Some have voiced concern about our plan to take a full three years from the referendum to build the institutions that we need before becoming independent. So I want to lay out precisely why we have proposed this by contrasting it with other proposals on the table. I certainly wish to refute any claim that we’ve been somehow misleading in our campaign by trying to hide or downplay our three year timetable. After all, it’s right there on paragraph one of page one of our book How to Start a New Country (which you can buy or download for free here).
Soft Independence – The Growth Commission Model
The Sustainable Growth Commission’s model for independence is currently the only other substantial work published about the process and vision for an independent Scotland and has, naturally, been the focus of the comparisons with Common Weal’s plans and at the National Assemblies.
The title of this section is, however, a little misleading. The Growth Commission’s report explicitly excludes laying out a timeline of the transition to independence nor does it even lay out a process for Scotland becoming an independent country. Such things lie, quite understandably, outwith the remit of the report. There is nothing negative about this – the report set out to answer specific questions and the process and timeline of independence was not one of them.
The closest the report does come to addressing this topic is first where it assumes that Scotland would be independent from the financial year 2021-22 though it very explicitly states that this is not a prediction and has been done purely for the purposes of illustrating the fiscal modelling that the report covers.
Again, there is nothing negative about this. Such assumptions must be made at some point if one wants to have a meaningful discussion and I have made similar illustrative baseline assumptions such as when I took the financial year 2016-17 as my baseline for Beyond GERS.
The only other hint of thinking about transition within the Growth Commission’s work is found in the chapter on set up and transition costs which is largely based – or directly drawn from – on the work done by Prof Patrick Dunleavy for the 2014 Scotland’s Future White Paper. In this section, the report suggests the possibility of disentangling Scotland’s civil institutions not just by territorially splitting existing departments or by building new ones but also by contracting Whitehall for services post-independence.
This idea of buying or contracting services from the UK is something that the Growth Commission discusses in other places as well – notably in the discussion about the Annual Solidarity Payment and the idea that instead of Scotland building a foreign aid department, it would instead give a sum of money to the remaining UK equal to our current contribution towards UK aid and they would spend it on our behalf. This is the “soft independence” that has been discussed by the Growth Commission. Independence, but a ceding of key powers and institutions to the state Scotland has just become independent from.
A Rapid Transition – Scotland’s Future
Whilst the Growth Commission report only tangentially discusses the question of how Scotland transitions to independence, those tangents do appear to be based on the previous work laid down during the 2014 independence and the Scotland’s Future White Paper.
This plan called for an 18 month transition period between referendum and independence and it is this timetable – rather than the Growth Commission report – that appears to be the one to which Common Weal’s is compared.
This 18 month timetable also involved longer term transitions in which Scotland would continue to use UK civil departments – such as HMRC – on a “shared services” basis until Scottish departments were established. A short transition to independence is, of course, made easier if one doesn’t need to think about immediately setting up things like a tax and revenue department or a Central Bank.
This process may have been well grounded by the circumstances of the 2014 independence referendum. But circumstances have “materially changed” since then.
For a start, Brexit has happened. It was far easier to imagine sharing agreements being made in 2014 under the background of both Scotland and rUK being full EU members and subject to the same sets of common standards and regulations. Post-Brexit, there is the real prospect of the UK (or rUK) rapidly tearing up many of those regulations as it attempts to build its “Global Britain” brand. If this happens, the idea of Scotland itself diverging far from the UK model whilst still being dependent on the UK for government services becomes harder. This is especially true of Scotland wishes to rejoin the EU. If this is the case then it must be compliant with EU membership rules. This requirement for compliance may dictate that Scotland MUST set up its own institutions in order to demonstrate not only that they are compliant at the point of entry into the EU but will also remain so afterwards.
There’s also the political dimension. The 2014 referendum was set under the banner of the Edinburgh Agreement and a binding resolution for both the Scottish and UK government’s to respect the result. This agreement also grounded the referendum itself by the official signing of a Section 30 order which sanctioned it. Despite the bombast, bluster and threats deployed during the campaign itself – a sober negotiation afterwards was relatively likely.
But we’re no longer in 2012. We’re now in the era of “now is not the time“. David Cameron “knew” he would win the 2014 referendum thus granted it readily. No-one in the UK Government is going to make that assumption again – least of all “strong and stable” Theresa May.
We’re now faced with the real possibility that there will be no analogue of the Edinburgh Agreement. No Section 30 order.
This doesn’t mean no referendum though. I would love someone to ask May if – in light of the weight that she’s placed on the “Will of the People” to carry her through the unofficial EU referendum – whether she would respect the result of an unofficial independence referendum. Anyone in the press reading this blog, please ask her.
If we do end up gaining our independence via this route, whilst I’m not predicting a Madrid style campaign of political repression (if only for the simple reason that the UK doesn’t have a UK-wide police force the way that Spain does), I don’t think we can count on being able to access rUK government services simply by buying them at current costs. We may need to look building more substantial foundations.
Equal Partners – The Common Weal Plan
Common Weal’s transition plan is based on the principle of institutional self-reliance. Scotland should build all of the institutions that it needs to run an independent country in the period between the referendum and independence.
This will take longer than arranging a “soft independence” and so we’ve proposed the three year timetable. As the three year timetable was chosen based on the length of time needed to complete the lengthiest aspect of the transition, namely the currency, this plan has been characterised as “delaying independence” until the currency is ready. This is somewhat unfair.
One only needs to look at Brexit again. The two year process of negotiating the UK’s withdrawal is looking decidedly tight and this would have been the case even if the UK had approached said negotiations with an ounce of competence.
Given that Scotland is rather more embedded within the UK than the UK is within the EU and given that we should not assume that the UK will make the same negotiating mistakes twice, we should be prepared to take our time.
A core negotiating principle is that the less you need from the other side and the more they need from you, the stronger your position is. If Scotland needs to negotiate a currency union or access to HMRC but the UK gains nothing by allowing it (or can gain by extracting a high price for allowing it) then Scotland’s position is weak.
If, however, Scotland does not need to buy access to such institutions but can potentially offer co-ordination between departments – on the basis of two equal nations sharing sovereignty rather than one buying services from the other – then Scotland’s negotiating position is much stronger. Perhaps we’d gain if co-operation is agreed but we wouldn’t necessarily lose anything if it is not.
There will also be areas where substantially more work will need to be done as a result of our changed circumstances. The border between Scotland and England is a case in point here. If Scotland is to be a member of the EU then we must now accept that as a direct result of Brexit, the previous stance of an open, Common Travel Area is far less tenable. Instead, it is likely that whatever border arrangement is eventually agreed regarding the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland would form the model for the border between Scotland and England. To do otherwise would invite the possibility of smuggling or border hopping across one or the other frontier and, pragmatically, picking an agreed solution off-the-shelf is easier to work with than creating another bespoke one.
But here’s the thing. Forget the currency aspect of the transition. Does anyone seriously think that it would be possible for Scotland and England to build the necessary customs and border infrastructure within 18 months – even with the plans agreed ahead of time?
And the most important principle throughout Common Weal’s plans cannot be forgotten. The transition must be “Future Neutral”. It would have been easy for Common Weal to have written the transition in such a way that it would have ensured Common Weal’s particular vision for an independent Scotland. Many of the Growth Commission’s proposals certainly appear to chain Scotland to their particular vision of independence.
But this would have been wrong. A democratic Scotland must allow the fullest possible choice for the future. The first independent general election in Scotland will be the opportunity for the various parties to lay out their manifestos. Maybe one party will fight to share sovereignty with the remaining UK (or another state) over a particular issue. Maybe another would prefer a more independent approach. This is possible if Scotland is institutionally self-reliant. It is not possible if Scotland is forced to buy essential services from the UK. Even if such a service agreement is the preferred option of the party of Government during the negotiation period, it would be undemocratic of them to lock Scotland into their particular plan for the future.
I’ll reiterate my position that I’ve been generally pleased with the level of discussion around these topics. It’s through discussion that ideas are tested and made stronger.
And it’s in that spirit that I would ask those concerned about our proposed timeline to consider presenting theirs. The 18 month Scotland’s Future plan is no longer tenable. If it can be adapted, then those adaptations need to be laid out – remember that this kind of thing lay outwith the Growth Commission’s remit. If a new transition plan is to be written, then that needs to be presented too.
There is one final principle that applies when it comes to project management. Solutions can be delivered at low cost. They can be delivered quickly. They can be delivered well. Pick any two.
If we want a transition to independence that comes at the cost of Scotland’s sovereignty over key issues then I’m sure it can be delivered quickly.
But if we want to gain and preserve that sovereignty and we want an independence that works well, then we should perhaps think about taking a bit of time to ensure it.